In 2020 during lock-down, I made the mistake of watching a YouTube video of the making of a Cranmer KP-L5 guitar. From there on in, I entered the crazy world of arch guitar collection in a desire – some might say almost a mania – to search out and find the Holy Grail of acoustic, archtop guitars.
Until the Cranmer video, I had been quite happy with my Le Voi Cat’s Eye and Le Voi petite-bouche Maccaferri guitars. As a guitarist in a Django inspired quintet, both guitars served me admirably and I wasn’t looking for another guitar. And then the Cranmer video happened….
The Cranmer video showed the construction of a guitar based on the design of a 1934 Gibson L5 – perfect in every detail except that it incorporated a suspended fretboard arrangement which enabled the soundboard maximum freedom to vibrate and project. The Gibson L5 I knew about – it’s the Lloyd Loar design of the 1920s that created the concept of an archtop guitar based on violin construction. The resulting instrument, an archtop with F holes, was louder than its flat top cousins and led Gibson into the jazz age as the guitar began to replace the banjo in jazz bands of the period.
However, the design of a guitar with a fixed bridge and adjustable neck was new to me. Happily the Cranmer video linked up to a talk given by Ken Parker (of Parker Fly fame) at the 2019 Rocky Mountain Archtop Festival, Colorado, in which Ken traced the history of the archtop guitar. During the talk, he explains why archtops came into prominence as the rhythm instrument in a jazz band, replacing the banjo. But then he goes on to explain the principle of the suspended neck and fixed bridge arrangement which allows the soundboard of the guitar maximin freedom to resonate and project sound waves.
The solid, four-to-the-floor, chunk of an acoustic archtop in the rhythm section of the jazz bands of the 1930s and 40s became the standard to which all archtops aspired. Before amplification, the big names of the period, guitarists such as Freddie Green, Alan Reus and Eddie Condon, relied on the acoustic properties of the archtop to cut through and be heard above the reeds and horns. It was only later in the 1930s that Gibson produced the first commercially available amplified guitar, the ES 150, made famous by Charlie Christian who pioneered the guitar as a lead instrument capable of trading front-line duties with the sax and trumpet. From there on in, the amplified archtop became the guitar of the jazz aficionado and to some extent, the role of the acoustic archtop was diminished.
The Cranmer KP-L5 provides the best of both worlds. An acoustic arch-top with the gravity and punch of the very best archtop, acoustic guitars, but with a suspended, Bartalloni pick up for when the Charlie Christian mood strikes. The guitar neck is raised and lowered using a key inserted at the heel of the guitar. Raised to 2.5mm a the 12th fret, the action is ideal for that loud punch of the acoustic jazz guitar when I play it in a big band rhythm section. Two turns of the key, and the action is lowered to around 1.5mm for electric work with a fast action fretboard providing a beautiful bell-like quality through the pickup.
My small archtop collection now includes a 1941 Gibson L7/ES 300, a 1946 Epiphone Emperor and a 1941 D’Angelico New Yorker. They are all loved and each have their own, unique acoustic voice. But the Cranmer KP-L5 is my first, archtop, love and my go-to guitar for both acoustic and electric work.
For technical specifications click here.
Cranmer Guitars – https://www.cranmerguitars.co.uk/kpl5
Ken Parker on Archtop Design – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHzmCw-bS0k&t=126s
Guitarist David McCormack
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